It had been a good hike so far. During the past several miles, we had enjoyed seeing rocky outcroppings, mature trees, and carpets of ferns. As we climbed a steep hill toward the top of the ridgeline, the trail widened and grew brighter. Distant buzzards soared effortlessly in the bright, blue sky. We found ourselves standing on a rocky cliff. A few hundred feet below, forest stretched out to the horizon. It sounds a bit like the Hocking Hills, doesn’t it? But it wasn’t. It was Christmas Rocks.
Christmas Rocks sounds like the name of an album of holiday music. Instead it is a spectacular 554 acre nature preserve in Fairfield county. Until quite recently it was accessible by permit only. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) has removed that restriction, and now it is open to the public … if you can find it. There isn’t much online information about Christmas Rocks, but we’re attempting to remedy that.
The entrance to Christmas Rocks State Nature Preserve is a nondescript gravel road with a brown wooden sign announcing the preserve and a bit farther down the road, a small kiosk. As you walk down the road, a small stream (Arney Run) is to your right. The road parallels the stream, slowly climbing. Follow the road, ignoring all the small side roads on the left side. The road continues to climb, above the stream which will be in a valley to your right. You will eventually see another kiosk with more trail information. The road will turn from gravel into a mown grass path. Continue onward.
Eventually you’ll come to the first of two loop trails. If you go left, you will be starting the southern trailhead for the Jacob’s Ladder trail loop. This trail is designated as an orange path on the kiosk’s trail map and by orange markers on the trail. If you choose to go straight instead, you’ll be following the Christmas Rocks Trail, designated by a blue path on the map and by blue markers on the trail. We went straight ahead on the Christmas Rocks trail until we got to the upper portion of the trail. Then we did the Christmas Rocks loop. Once the loop brought us back to the road, we followed the main road southwards until we reached the stairway that’s the northern trailhead for the Jacobs Ladder trail loop (see my GPS trace near the bottom of this post). Both trails are well-marked by color coded posts and ribbons; there were wooden bridges over streams and wet areas.
The Christmas Rocks trail takes you through mature forest with several large rock outcroppings, fern-edged trails, and hills. It also leads across ridgelines. It is very pretty countryside.
The Jacob’s Ladder trail is very similar, except towards the end of the loop, you find yourself standing on a cliff looking towards the southwest over the heavily forested Hocking Hills in the distance. It is a spectacular view. According to the Fairfield County Visitors and Convention Center, from this point to the base of the cliff is a 100-foot sheer drop (30.5 meters). From the top of the cliff to the creek in the valley below is 300 feet (91.4 meters).
The trail lead back to the main path and from there we walked back to the park entrance. We walked both loop trails and returned to our starting point, a total distance of 4.75 miles.
I spoke by phone to Jeffrey Johnson, the SE Preserve Manager for ODNR and confirmed that even though you will see old “permit only” signs as you enter the preserve, a permit is no longer required. However the ODNR is doing an experiment by opening Christmas Rocks Nature Preserve to the general public. If it looks like the hikers are harming this fragile habitat, ODNR will re-institute the permit policy.
About the name, “Christmas Rocks”
The early settlers are responsible for the name, “Christmas Rocks.” Mr Johnson was kind enough to share two theories as to why they may have chosen this particular name.
- The settlers may have collected ferns known as “Christmas ferns” (Polystichum acrostichoides) to use for a holiday decoration. Christmas ferns remain green most of the winter; when spring is nearly here, they brown and wither to make way for the new season’s foliage.
- Alternatively, the settlers may have named the area “Christ Rocks,” and this named changed into “Christmas Rocks” over time. The inspiration for the “Christ Rocks” theory is that there are rocks in the preserve with large fissures (although they’re not on the trail). Seeing the fissures may have reminded the settlers of the biblical passage, Mathew 27:51:
Suddenly the curtain in the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom, the earth shook, rocks were split open.
Deb’s two cents
Deb is inclined to believe the area was named after the ferns. Her thinking is that the two neighboring areas in the preserve, “Christmas Rocks” and “Jacob’s Ladder”, both refer to vegetation. Jacob’s Ladder is a spring, wildflower that is native to Ohio. Her guess is that it is (or was) prevalent in the region when sites were being named.
- Christmas Rocks Nature Preserve, published by Fairfield County Visitors and Convention Center
- While other plants slumber, Christmas ferns put on a show, published by the Columbus Dispatch.
- Polystichum acrostichoides, published by Wikipedia (this is about Christmas ferns)
- Laetiporus, published by Wikipedia (this is about the orange mushroom)
- TrekOhio: An Overview of Hiking Trails in Fairfield County
- TrekOhio: Fairfield County Parks & Preserves
Now for directions, but first an important note – this is a very special area – so tread lightly, stay on the trails at all times, leave nothing behind, and take only photographs.
The trail-head for Christmas Rocks State Nature Preserved is located at the intersection of Meister Rd SW, Oil Mill Hollow Rd SW, and Crooks Rd SW in Fairfield County just south of Lancaster.
GPS coordinates: N39.639748,W82.650034
There is no parking for Christmas Rocks (no restrooms either). Instead park in the nearby paved lot for Arney Run County Park on Crooks Road SW. This county park is located next to the Mink Hollow covered bridge (take a moment to look at the covered bridge). Then walk the short distance to Oil Mill Hollow Rd SW. This old gravel logging road is the actual trail head. You will see the Christmas Rocks sign and a little farther down the road, the kiosk.
A GPS trace of our hike is embedded below. For a larger resolution image showing more of the surrounding roads, click here.